Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Plunge

I sat politely and listened, my eyes following the faces of my new agent friends as they weighed in with enthusiastic stories of how many hits some client’s podcast received, or of the great new project they’d discovered through Twitter. We were seated in a big round booth in a cocktail lounge in Chelsea. It was September, and I would be moving to New York just after Christmas. The young agents I sat beside would be my new friends in the city. They seemed hip, sleek and plugged in, and I was pretending I knew exactly what they were talking about. Outwardly, I appeared engaged. Inwardly, I wanted to crawl under the table with my martini and sulk.

Social media? Blogs? Tweeting?! Fine for them, I thought. Not for me. I was interested in books. The old kind – with spines and paper. What did Facebook have to do with great literature? Nothing, I scoffed. I could barely say Twitter without my lip curling in disgust – it seemed the worst kind of narcissism. Who needed to know, in 140 words or less, what I was up to at any given moment? And blogs…don’t get me started. It was bush league journalism. Not for serious readers. Serious readers spent hours pouring over the New York Times every Sunday morning as they worked off their hangovers with nine cups of coffee or bottomless mimosas. I didn’t turn to the internet for real information. I used it for email, WebMD (I feel feverish – Ebola Virus!), and to peruse the occasional online J.Crew sale.

I stirred my drink and thought about our beautiful home office in Tiburon, which I would soon be trading for a shared space in Midtown. The Tiburon office exuded old-school cool – bookcases lined with hardbound classics extending to the ceiling, a stone fireplace, and leather chairs perfect for reading. Not to mention the view of the
San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge peeking through a curtain of fog in the background. The home office reflected the dignity of a bygone era, and the prestige of some of the agency’s great clients – Faulkner, Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley. I was completely comfortable there. Actually, I was ecstatic. It was exactly the space all us English major nerds dream of landing, when we actually pop our heads above whichever Joyce or Woolf novel we’re mesmerized by, to think about the real world. As far as I was (and still am) concerned, it was
book heaven.

But I was about to leave this heaven, and the publishing world, along with the rest of the nation, was about to enter an economic downturn that would shock us from our armchairs. In the months to follow the conversation that always seemed to play softly in the background, the one about the death of publishing and books as we know them, would be turned up full force. Suddenly the topic on everyone’s lips was how to evolve and survive. The unanimous answer from every corner from the Association of Authors’ Representatives to the New York Observer was to embrace new media, in particular the e book. Running from the wings to save us like an overeager first year medical student with shock paddles was Jeff Bezos and his fancy new Kindle. I was skeptical.

I tend to be a little slow to embrace change. I’ve found that many of us book people are. We gravitate to old things, dusty shelves, stationery, lockets and pocket-watches. We wear tweed in non-ironic ways. We refer to our first dictionary the way most people talk about a cherished family pet. I challenge you to find a publishing person who doesn’t own at least one pair of argyle socks.

But there we all were, in a real disaster situation as respected editors were dropping like flies and houses like Houghton-Mifflin were announcing – gasp! an acquisitions freeze. The landscape was bleak. I, like many others, decided to sit up and step up to the 21st century. Luddites no longer, we were willing to try anything, because, after all, we cared deeply about books and we would do whatever it took to preserve them. If a chorus of industry professionals was now saying that having an active online presence would boost an author’s book sales, then golldarnit, my clients would be on the interweb by morning!

So, it is now that I screw up my courage to deliver to you this first ever blog. These days I’m an active member on and Shelfari, and even dear old Twitter. I have an unhealthy obsession with my Kindle. Just yesterday I managed to use “tweet” as a verb and keep a straight face. There may be hope for me yet.

If there’s any real message I’d like to deliver from this little tale, it is that if you are a writer and you aren’t already active on these social media sites, it’s okay. Feel no shame – there’s hope for you too! If you’re feeling stubborn and resentful and thinking of crawling under your computer to stage a Twitter-boycott, gently push those feelings aside and just give it a go. As Stephenie Meyer’s editor at Little, Brown said to me recently, while shoving a copy of Twilight into my hands, “Resistance is futile!”

But if that’s not a compelling enough reason to give it a whirl, I’m here to tell you that all the social networking really does work. For better or worse, the days of reclusive authors mailing their masterpieces to New York and then retreating to their mountain cabins while the next brilliant idea gestates are over. It is an absolute
truth that the success of a book depends in large part on the willingness of its author to promote it. We have at our fingertips, and mostly for free, an unprecedented new array of options with which to promote ourselves and our material. Let’s use it. Get that cabin wired!

I found myself back at that same bar recently, with the same
wonderful agent friends. They are gems, and I am lucky to be part of such a great community. One of them pushed a stylish lock of dark hair from her forehead, arm bangles jingling, and proclaimed, “I’m excited! We’re at a pivotal moment in publishing, and I feel energized.” Goody Two-Shoes, I thought. Really? You’re excited? You know we’re not on a panel now, right? But as my envy of her wide-eyed optimism slowly disappeared along with the contents of my cocktail, I realized her attitude is absolutely right. No fear! Now is the time to be taking risks and exploring new territory. Why fight it? We just might like it.

By Elizabeth